[NOTE:  Barry Flamm is a former Secretary of Cornucopia’s Board of Directors.]

Certified Organics: 2015
by Barry Flamm

Barry Flamm

Members of MOA care deeply about organics. For many it is your life: manifesting a deep conviction that organics is the future for agriculture if a healthy, sustainable world is to be achieved.

An important step in advancing U.S. organic production was the 1990 passage of the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), which brought integrity and order to organic food production and marketing. This Act and the implementing regulations were driven by the organic community’s desire to insure the integrity of organics, which is reflected by the seal of approval, and to assure a continuing role of the organic community in maintaining the high standards for organics.

To help achieve this goal, Congress established a citizen advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and gave it very important duties and rather unique powers as essential advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture on all issues concerning the implementation of OFPA and special responsibilities for what substances may appear on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Intended as the voice of the organic community, the 15-member Board intends to represent the broad spectrum of interests in the organic community: farmers, handlers, retail, environmental protection and resource conservation, consumer interests, science, and certification. For some more background on the NOSB, please take a look at my article in the Summer 2014 issue of Organic Matters or the NOSB page on MOA’s website at: www.montanaorganicassociation.org/nosb.htm.

Since passage of the Act and implementation of the Rule, organic production and sales have increased, outpacing other agriculture sectors. Organics can be found on shelves everywhere, but to our dismay, they are sometimes mixed with labels such as “natural,” confusing customers as to which is best. But we have pointed with pride to the organic seal and all that it stands for!

I remember not long ago being ridiculed and attacked for risking my neighbor’s crops by being organic. Now many of the same people are at least occasionally buying and eating organic food.

Organics are mainstream. The January 2015 issue of Costco Connection’s cover story was “Growing Organic,” with the subtitle “keeping pace with a booming market.” The  article begins, “Walk into just about any food retailer and, more often than not, you’ll be faced with a choice: whether to buy organic or conventionally grown food. But what does it all mean? Simply put, certified organic foods have been farmed without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and do not use GMOs…”

We know that organics is more than what we don’t do, but what we do to produce healthy food while protecting and sustaining the environment. Consumers are concerned with these values, but are mostly concerned with buying chemical-free foods. OFPA reflects this public interest by saying, “…establishes the overall principle that, in order to be labeled as organic it must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals.” The law recognizes there may be a need for temporary exemptions, thus it provided for a thorough review process, whereby certain synthetics could be permitted for use but would sunset, or be removed, after five years.

OFPA and public expectations vs. exemptions are in conflict. The materials on the National List have grown to 137 (crops 51, Livestock 40, processing 46) and consumers may be surprised by what is currently allowed.

As I reviewed in my last article (referenced earlier), the National Organic Program (NOP) was established within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to administer OFPA requirements. The staff was very small until 2008, when increase in budget and staff occurred along with newly declared USDA support for organic and a pledge of “organic integrity from farm to table—consumers trust the organic label.” For several years, collaboration and working relations between NOSB and NOP grew and recommendations for strengthening organic programs were submitted and adopted.

In 2013, all began to change without public notice or opportunity to comment. In summary, NOP limited the NOSB’s ability to provide independent advice to the Secretary of Agriculture by taking away the Board’s ability to develop its work plan and agenda. NOP also arbitrarily disbanded the important Policy Development Committee (aka sub committee) and expired the Policy and Procedures Manual (PPM), which was developed over the years with public participation.

Then in September 2013, NOP announced dramatic changes in the approval process for synthetic and non-organic materials allowed on the National List. The sunset procedural changes were now in conflict with OFPA and NOSB procedures mandated in the PPM. The important concept here is that materials sunsetted after five years unless, after careful review, the material was shown to be safe and was essential as no viable alternative existed, was turned on its head. As with all petitioned materials, sunsetting materials had required a super majority 2/3 vote in order to stay on the list. NOP’s dictate now required a super majority to remove a material from the list. This action makes sunset almost meaningless! It will be rare that any material will be removed if these procedures remain in effect.

Principle authors of OFPA, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter De Fazio, wrote Secretary Vilsack expressing “great concern” regarding the sunset provision changes. Past NOSB chairmen, including myself, wrote the Secretary expressing grave concerns for the arbitrary changes at NOSB and in the sunset process. These appeals were ignored by Secretary Vilsack and Deputy Administrator McEvoy. Instead, USDA/NOP tried to cement the radical changes last May through an amendment to the NOSB Federal Advisory Board Charter, improperly assigning authority to USDA to terminate the NOSB. This action took place immediately following the April NOSB meeting, in which McEvoy took over as Co-chair, intruding on the independence and authority of the NOSB.

Twenty organizations, pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act, petitioned amendments to the Charter to reflect the duties of NOSB and reflect the mandatory, continuing status of the NOSB. The Petition’s issues have not been fully resolved, but USDA has now amended the Charter to acknowledge that NOSB status is continuing.

At the Fall 2014 Board meeting, the NOSB Chair resumed presiding over the proceedings. The Policy Development Sub Committee was reinstated, but according to a NOSB source it has not yet met nor has an agenda. In any case, NOP overstepped their authority by unilaterally dismissing a Standing Committee (aka sub).

In spite of Congressional and many public objections, NOP has stood firm on its Sunset change. NOP’s instructions on implementation of the new policy has left the NOSB and its subcommittees confused. The confusion was apparent at the Fall meeting, where members were unclear on how and what to vote. This was not so serious this time as there were few materials to vote on. However, coming up are a massive number of materials sunsetting. (9 materials in 2016 and 115 materials in 2017).

Unfortunately, these serious problems created by NOP may have to be addressed in court. Involved organic advocates and organizations have been cautious criticizing program faults as they believe strongly in organics and have not wanted to weaken the organic image.

This is changing. Consumer Union, publisher of Consumer Reports and the most widely respected private consumer watchdog, downgraded the value of the organic seal from their highest rating. Uravashi Rangan, Director of Consumer Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Union stated last October that, “Organic is slipping. As a result we have downgraded its rating from highly meaningful to meaningful.” This happened only after very careful consideration of several issues, but was ultimately triggered by the NOP Sunset changes and the debasing of NOSB. We should also be aware that there are other seals of approval that have a high rating for integrity that may challenge the Certified Organic Seal if we don’t speak up about the weakening of the NOSB. Other labels will emerge if the trend of eroding organic integrity continues and if consumers are not getting what they paid for.

There has been much progress in organics and a rapid increase in production and product availability to consumers. But quantity must not diminish quality and the integrity of organics.

Integrity should be a fact, not rhetoric! If you believe this, your voices MUST be heard.

Visit www.montanaorganicassociation.org/nosb.htm for easy ways to express your concerns to the representatives that can make a difference and to the organizations that are working hard to retain the integrity of the Certified Organic Seal.

This article was reprinted with permission from Montana Organic Association’s Winter 2015 issue of Organic Matters. Visit www.montanaorganicassociation.org.

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